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Tribal school offers culturally relevant curriculum

SAULT STE. MARIE, MI – The Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishnabe Public School Academy (JKL), offers a wide variety of learning and teaching environments with a focus on Native American culture.

JKL is a charter school under Northern Michigan University and is also classified as an Office of Indian Education Programs school. Located on trust land and within one mile of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians reservation, the school has an enrollment of 450 of which 67 percent are American Indian students.

Carolyn Dale, curriculum director, said, “Having native culture as part of our lesson plans is unique. I haven’t seen it in any other Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school. It doesn’t apply for every lesson, but in many instances a cultural connection is made. It has been amazing to see such a young school grow so quickly and become so successful.”

JKL opened in 1994 as a kindergarten to grade six school and today has expanded to include a middle school serving students to grade eight.

“We focus on academics and pull in the heritage component to compliment the lessons. Instructors might be working on a lesson in solar systems and touch base with our culture and language instructors about how to bring in a traditional teaching,” said school Superintendent Susan K. Palmer.

“When I first came here I remember looking through the [Michigan Educational Assessment Program] MEAP scores and seeing low single-digit numbers. Now when you look at our MEAP scores they range from 80 to 100 percent. Our staff and students have worked hard but it is also about being in touch with your culture and being comfortable with that. We find that is a big part of their achievement; in many grades our Native students are scoring slightly higher than non-native students. I attribute that to community, to the way Sault Ste. Marie has embraced our Native culture as well as the things we do at school,” said Dale.

Today JKL is one of 20 charter schools in the state, out of 229, that have attained the highest across-the-board averages on MEAP tests.

In our information rich world, it is necessary to actively participate and learn about technology. Middle school students at JKL have recently been provided with the opportunity to acquire new skills as one of five schools in the BIE system of 185 schools to be part of a pilot NASA program. “The BIE has paid for new equipment at the middle school level and students now get lessons live from NASA scientists – from the Kennedy Space Center, the Goddard Space Center and other centers throughout the U.S. – part of which is based on career awareness,” said Palmer. “Our school was chosen for this honor based on our annual yearly progress and the successes our students have had.”

Michelle Wellman-Teeple and Chris Gordon teach Anishinaabe language and life-ways, or culture. Gordon teaches a middle school native studies class which addresses the history and cultural makeup of different groups. “We compare cultures using modern understandings from a Native perspective about how different things are perceived in society. They study stereotypes and how that might impact a culture and the historical foundation and progression of the tribes. I gave a talk at our drum dance social to remind students – and somewhat the staff – the reason the school was created was to reclaim and revitalize, promote and pass on the language, culture and heritage of the Anishinaabe people. Native children were not getting the kind of treatment, services or attention necessary in the public schools to be successful academically and socially. The community saw a way to do both by opening this school. We expose students to the Anishinaabe culture so they can have a solid foundation – the Native kids can apply their identity and heritage – and our non-Native students know that not all American Indians live in teepees, wear headdresses and ride horses. That is no disrespect for the tribes that do those things, it has just become a cultural perception,” said Gordon.

“Technology is good, that is what the future is. It is important to show the kids that have a strong cultural tie that they can live in both worlds. They can be proud of who they are – sing and dance at ceremonies and live a traditional life – and yet have a Blackberry and internet access and text people. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. It helps having the resources available at the school to be able to show kids they can do both,” he said.

Gordon also teaches an elective class for middle school students called Ezhichigeying, which means “We are doing.” With help from the school’s art teacher, Bill Morrison, and local craftspeople, students have learned how to make shelters, decoys, rope and a birch bark canoe. Last year Gordon taught students how to do loom beading, make war clubs, medicine pouches, bows and dream catchers.

Wellman-Teeple teaches kindergarten to fourth grade. “I try to connect some of the things we do in language and culture class with what they are doing in their regular classrooms because I know there is often not a continuation at home. I don’t want them to think that culture is only in the classroom and has nothing to do with anything else,” she said.

“For the kids who do strongly identify with their culture, coming to JKL helps them feel good about who they are and makes them stronger in their own sense of cultural identity.”

“We are here all the time, not just in November during Native American Heritage month – we are Anishinaabe every day of the year,” said Wellman-Teeple.

“Native people in general are not just casino Indians – we have a heritage and culture that we live every single day. We are still here because our ancestors fought to keep that alive and now we are fortunate enough to have that in our school,” Gordon said.

The Native American Heritage Day Act of 2008 designates Friday, Nov. 28, as Native American Heritage Day. State and local organizations are encouraged to participate in ceremonies and activities related to American Indian cultures, traditions and languages and celebrate the rich American Indian cultural legacy.

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush signed proclamations designating the month of November as Native American Heritage Month in previous years. The passage and signing of H.J. Res. 62, establishes into law an official day of remembrance and recognition of American Indians.

To learn more about the award winning JKL Bahweting Anishnabe Public School Academy, visit or visit Northern Michigan University’s Web site at

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